Hidden in the clutter of society
MAHOGANY SUN - Ricardo J. Cueto Jr. () - August 21, 2010 - 12:00am

Only Leonardo da Vinci could paint a Mona Lisa but, if robotics were to recapture his creation in material three-dimensional animation, only an engineer can design for it a series of iterative motion that could give the cyborg a smile closest to the mystic original. Engineers design tools that physical scientists need to explore new theories. Matrix algebra had to wait for ages in the dusty shelves of mathematicians, finding not much practical use until electronic digital computers came by.

Without engineering, future explorations to new places in the universe where human race could possibly exist as it does here will remain a pipe dream. Medical professionals laid the groundwork and technical bases for modern equipment it required to take their science to new heights, but they needed engineering support to make those machines work with desired precision and accuracy.

But engineering does not exist without the necessity for questions. What sorts of mechanisms were designed to control security systems for the largest airport terminal buildings in the world? How are heating, ventilation and air-conditioning able to keep travelers from chilling or sweating in such enclosed spaces larger than rice fields? Sure it was not enough just to run cables across them and install light bulbs to spare travelers from darkness. What is in women’s lotions and moisturizers that drives their laugh lines away? 

People are now able to jet between continents like they used to travel between cities because of new aircraft, navigational aids and signaling systems that engineers designed and developed. Business conglomerates sustain uninterrupted operations because their offices are secured under the shelter of modern skyscrapers that touch the clouds and boast of physical frameworks and building management systems that make them stand and operational. So much talk about intelligent buildings designed by intelligent humans.

When you gasp at the 800-meter-plus tall Burj Khalifa, does it cross your mind from where fire originating at the upper floors will be controlled? What permissible level of acceleration was considered in its design so that occupants close to the top would have very minimal perceptibility of potential lateral motions during strong winds? What if the Earth’s geology could still change and the “islands of calm” as we know them today eventually acquire the same seismicity status as those of Japan, India, California and the Philippines?

Physical beauty is, of course, the work of architecture — but the greater challenge, we engineers believe, is creating the frameworks that could make such beauties stand and deliver. For of what use would Lady Gaga be if she could not sway and gyrate? Leave the flawless skin alone, take out her skeletal system and she is good as vegetable. Take the GI tract away and she smells worse than sewers. But who would stare at Paris Hilton as she walks by simply because she has a flawless nervous system, if ever true, with nary a physical attraction to the only Hilton that is Paris?

Society pays no homage to works that are alien to the average mind. “I love my lawyer because he keeps me out of jail; my doctor because he keeps me alive. I buy that lady a drink because she is gorgeous. Beer costs this much here because this is the Shangri-La.”  What rationale, then, does one have to even develop a liking for somebody who has just named a new planet after himself, or has just presented some paper on new studies that some segment of a specific fault system is capable of generating a magnitude seven? People love English, not Greek.

In the days when mice were simply rats and viruses could infect only humans and not machines, the classic portrait of an engineer in this country was that of some overrated worker under the scorching sun, hands on waist and barking instructions that meant little else beyond words that you could already hear. Half a century thereafter while we sat across each other in his office, my boss told me structural engineers, like us, in the eyes of many, have remained overpaid carpenters as well as electrical engineers are overrated electricians. Indeed, how can someone tell the difference?  

But engineers are not alone in this. They sit alongside even rarer species that go by the “nametag” physical scientists. When the purest breeds of them sit in front of their computers, there are moments when the world stands still and nothing matters more than what they do. It is gross mistake to knock on their door to announce dinner is ready and it spells trouble to drop a pair of scissors on tiled flooring to disrupt their concentration on some mathematical formulation that means the world to them. Along the thin line that borders genius and insanity gravitates a small family of humans that has given us light, wireless communication, eternal hope that life as we know it could exist in some place other than where we are now, and endless possibilities for everything that is.

It is amusing how certain forms of brilliance may be associated with curious inability to express oneself, be manipulated by society’s decision-makers, and shoved around by them keepers of the Wall Street legend. Towards the end of his life, Robert Oppenheimer was reported to have expressed regret for taking a major role in creating the atomic bomb and that Einstein had deeply-seated distrust for power and “despaired over weapons and wars.” Unfortunately even the mind of a genius could only take so much to yet examine the conscience of men as it works best in isolation hidden in the clutter of society.

I could almost see Oppenheimer — intense, probing Jewish eyes, crumpled coat and all — deeply immersed in scientific research and analyses while President Roosevelt and the US military simply waited for the launching of the first nuclear bomb out of Manhattan Project. The free world might have very good reasons to do it ahead of Hitler’s Germany, but it changed the world many times over.

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